Analysis: Proposed Amendment Raises Fears About Rights to Free Expression

By San Yamin Aung 26 February 2018

YANGON— Myanmar’s controversial protest law has again been tabled in parliament with two major amendments scheduled to be debated this week. The changes include a requirement that the sources of protest funding be identified and the stipulation of jail terms for people using such assemblies to instigate unrest.

The bill, which seeks to amend the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, was submitted by the Upper House Bill Committee last week.

The legislative push is being viewed as the latest attempt by the NLD-dominated parliament to deter those with hidden agendas from masterminding protests and to reduce the risk of racial and religious violence.

“It seems they want to expose the dark elements [behind protests],” outspoken former Yangon region lawmaker and legal expert Daw Nyo Nyo Thin said, citing the requirement that would-be organisers of peaceful assemblies and processions inform police in advance not only of their agenda and the estimated numbers of people involved, but also the expected costs and the identity of the persons or organizations that would cover the costs.

Several mass rallies have been held against the government in recent months to protest a string of actions by authorities including the imposition of a one-year preaching ban on the ultranationalist monk U Wirathu, the arrest of nationalists and a ban on the country’s biggest religious nationalist group, the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, from operating under its name.

Following a protest against Religious Affairs Minister U Aung Ko in May last year, the ministry released a statement that the alleged protesters were paid sums ranging from 7, 000 to 30, 000 kyats (US$5-$22) to participate.

More recently, nationalists appeared at the court hearing for slain lawyer U Ko Ni in early February wearing T-shirts printed with the slogan “Eat well (before you die)” to show support for the four men accused of involvement in the murder. The phrase in Burmese is considered a threat to show one’s anger and to warn of impending revenge.

Daw Nyo Nyo Thin said she personally agreed with the amendment seeking disclosure of the funding sources.

“We ask the government for accountability and transparency. So I personally believe we, the organizers should also be OK revealing the funding sources and estimated costs,” she said.

She added, however, that it would be more convenient to present the information after the demonstration, as, for example, in student demonstrations, individual residents often donate to the protestors as they march by.

Free speech advocate Maung Saungkha wrote that the proposed requirement wouldn’t impact protests funded by a party or political cronies but would complicate the organization of protests by farmers, workers and students, as the public helped fund participation in such rallies with contributions of 500 kyats or 1000 kyats per person.

He added that the amendment could cause these donors to hesitate as their names would be given to the police for supporting the protest.

Despite the disagreements over to the proposed requirement to identify funding sources, the most controversial part of the draft bill is the stipulated jail terms for using protests to instigate unrest.

The amendment states that anyone who provokes or exhorts others to organize or participate in demonstrations by bribing or paying them or doing anything else with the intention of “harming the stability, rule of law, peace and tranquility of the community and public morality would face a prison sentence of up to three years.”

Daw Nyo Nyo Thin said the clause “harming the stability, rule of law, peace and tranquility of the community and public morality” is too vague and broad, as is the phrase “doing anything else”.

“How will they define which act harms the stability or peace and tranquility of the community?” she asked.

The clause, which has its origins in the military-drafted 2008 constitution, was broadly used in the past to crack down on political activists, Daw Nyo Nyo Thin said.

She said the legislators and the government should keep in mind that the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is under the control of the military and not the government, is the body that would implement the law after it is approved.

She added that if the bill were approved, it would make worse the state’s repression of dissidents.

“It will not be good for the image of the country’s democracy or the government,” she said.

The same phrase was added to Article 4 of the law under the amendments, stating that demonstrators who want to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and procession are required to inform the police at least 48 hours before the intended day of the rally and to ensure the rally is “not contrary to the existing laws, stability, rule of law, peace and tranquility of the community and public morality”.

Free speech advocate Maung Saungkha wrote on Friday that the changes would give the police total authority to ban a protest if they judged it to be potentially harmful to the stability and peace and tranquility of the community.

The Upper House lawmaker Daw Ei Ei Pyone from Irrawaddy Division said the parliament would discuss the precise wording of the legislation in upcoming parliamentary sessions.

“I think it is necessary to prevent the intentionally created problems by some while the country is already struggling with many problems and challenges,” she said.

She added that she believed the amendments wouldn’t have an impact on free expression.

It is not good having those who pay money to people to participate in protests with the intention of creating instability or racial and religious violence at a time when the country is facing challenges, the MP said.

“It is obvious that the government wants to amend the law to take action against those who mastermind demonstrations and exploit the right to free expression and peaceful assembly to create a crisis situation for the government, as well as instability,” human rights activist U Aung Myo Min wrote on his Facebook account.

Still, he said, the law shouldn’t be prescribed or amended with the intention of preventing groups taking to the streets, adding that free expression and peaceful assembly were fundamental human rights.

The draft bill will be debated later this week.